As I sat in the darkness of the theatre for three full minutes, staring at the red EXIT sign, I realized that my face hurt. As I relaxed, I realized what the problem was: my cheeks were not used to actively smiling for over an hour at a time, just as my face is not used to being contorted by helpless laughter so often in such a short period of time. For those three full minutes of darkness, as I listened to nervous laughter flitting around the crowd in the middle of the revival performance of The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill: Volume 1 Early Plays/Lost Plays, I sat in my seat amazed that this show still had this effect on me in my third viewing experience.
That's right, three times. Perhaps you remember this show's lengthy, and appropriately "O'Neillian" title from my list of the Bes(s)t of 2011. I promised to share more about it, and now I am happy to be able sing the New York Neo-Futurists' praises for this sharp, witty, and thoroughly fantastic production in a less condensed setting. In this brief encore run, which consists of only three performances, more lucky people will have the opportunity to see a truly brilliant concept, expertly rendered.
To be fair, this show is kind of a "perfect storm" scenario for me, in the sense that I am in many ways their ideal audience member. As someone who is planning to write a dissertation about stage directions, (which is a joke in their program, to boot!) when I first heard of this show, I immediately knew that I had to see it. Yet, as much as I was initially excited, my high expectations could have made me a very tough judge.
Any initial doubts I had dissipated as soon as I entered the Kraine Theater and saw the lovely simplistic set up: a few clocks, a desk with a lamp, a photo of O'Neill, a map, and some clotheslines. What these talented performers do with this space speaks to the true magic of the theatre: suddenly we're in an ocean, complete with sharks, then we're in the hold of a crowded ship, while we then find ourselves back in a New York apartment.
Yet, as brilliant as the aesthetic sensibilities of the Neo-Futurists are, it is the performances themselves that elevate this show to a level that is truly exceptional. When a group of actors work together in an ensemble for a lengthy period of time, they are able to communicate with each other in a way that pushes each other to higher levels of risk and reward. Though this is a scripted piece, the embodied performances show exactly the aspect of stage directions that interests me: the moments in between the words.
Though performers are seemingly restricted to the eccentric stage directions Eugene O'Neill has written for them, the Neo-Futurists spend most of their time subverting these words with their ironic interpretations and hilarious gestures. These gestures are relatively static over time, but the motivations for them change with each performance, adding a distinctly personal and improvisational feeling the show.
This palpable sense of immediacy, risk, and unpredictability is as infectious as Leonora's laughter. That reference is intentional, as the overall effect (/affect) of the production is that the audience feels that they have been part of one long inside joke. The feeling of intimacy that the performers have with each other makes itself known in between O'Neill's lines are spoken aloud. The intimate space of the Kraine lends itself to this kind of relationship with the audience, and the Neo-Futurists push this audience identification. This culminates in a moment where the audience members actually performs a stage direction themselves, as O'Neill scripts a dark interval of three minutes in between a final act and an epilogue. Here we are initiated into the club as full members of the New York Neo-Futurists, and the Eugene O'Neill universe portrayed on the stage.
No matter how much I write and talk about this show, I am forever running out of words to describe everything that inspires me about it. It is a rare thing to walk out of a show sore from laughing and smiling, but if I continue to follow the work of the New York Neo-Futurists, I think I will have to get used to that.